Is CBD a threat to the big pharmaceutical empire?

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One of the many conversations currently being had about CBD, besides all the health benefits, the controversy, the legality and the business opportunities, is its role in the healthcare industry. With its impressive list of health benefits and the long list of conditions it treats, CBD is a clear alternative to over-the-counter and prescription drugs that, when compared to all the drawbacks of the latter, is looking more and more like the better option. 

The current political climate has exacerbated this sentiment, as we see everyone from community leaders to known advocates of a reformed healthcare system to everyday people become more outspoken about the current healthcare system’s problems and how CBD and cannabis should be looked at as a solution. They have only become more emboldened as the conversation is picked up by politicians who keep an ear to their constituents. The topic is intensified by their platforms and their campaign rhetoric which, at the end of the day, are built around what the people in their communities and jurisdictions are most vocal about. Once stigmatized and outlawed for its psychoactive effects on the brain, marijuana’s reputation as an addictive and dangerous drug has quickly faded. The health benefits of the plant have come to the forefront and with the push of the internet, information about all the conditions it is being used to treat and all its therapeutic properties has become the focus. 

How CBD Threatens Big Pharma’s Revenue

The pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. has undoubtedly grown to become an unstoppable behemoth – worth an estimated $446 billion in 2016. Statistics have shown that 7 in 10 American adults take some kind of prescription drugs – now more than ever before in history. However, along with this, affording much-needed medicines has become more difficult than ever, with seemingly endless price increases on prescription drugs and health insurance. This has left many Americans unable to afford the medications they depend on for relief and in many cases, for survival. 

Considering all this, it’s no wonder that the pharmaceutical industry has come under fire in recent years. It has become notorious for putting profit before human lives. Some prominent cases come to mind, such as that of American pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli. He famously raised the price of an important HIV/AIDS medication by 5000% and openly denied having a good reason for doing so other than profit. This is a representation of what has been happening in the pharmaceutical industry for years now. In 2016, the U.S. Government  Accountability Office released a report on generic drug prices. The report revealed that over 300 generic drugs saw price increases of more than 100% from 2010 – 2015. 

One of the biggest money-makers for the pharmaceutical industry is cancer. The medications used to treat the disease as well as the symptoms that come with one of its treatments (chemotherapy) racked up $42.1 billion in the U.S. and $137.4 billion worldwide in 2017. Apart from this, vaccine revenue was at $6 billion in 2017 and the top-selling arthritis drug raked in $18 billion. These are just some examples, but the list of money making diseases for this industry goes on and on. CBD’s therapeutic properties that have been studied so far are used to treat and provide relief for all of these mentioned ailments and many more. In its oil and isolate form, it is much more affordable than many prescription drugs. In a nutshell, it is far less expensive, has shown minimal to no side effects and many times provides even better results for those who use it to treat pain and other symptoms. The more research is performed and the more information gets out there about this, the more people might quit the rat race of trying to keep up with astronomical medication pricing and turn to CBD instead. 

This isn’t just speculation; a study conducted by HelloMD and Brightfield Group performed an in-depth survey of over 2,400 patients who were comparing CBD to pharmaceuticals. About 60%  of respondents said that CBD was, to some extent, more effective than the prescription medications they tried or regularly used. Another 75% of respondents cited that CBD was more effective than over-the-counter medications. 

The Advantages of CBD Over Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drugs

Now that there is a more public focus on wellness and naturally derived remedies, the stigma around cannabis is quickly falling away. More information is being disseminated about how it interacts with the human body and how many conditions it can be used to treat. There is also a movement to re-examine our current healthcare system and all the medications they promote. 

A running joke surrounds commercials that are out there promoting certain medications, with their almost comically long list of possible side effect disclosures, many times even including death. Consumers no longer trust the pharmaceutical companies, or even doctors, to have altruistic motives and their best interests at heart. Thanks to the wild west that is the internet, public knowledge has been able to be stopped. Organizations that benefit from keeping the public trusting their healthcare providers and opposed to using CBD are losing their ability to do so as people become more proactive in finding information out for themselves. 

The way CBD works is by interacting with our endocannabinoid system and helping it regulate things like inflammation, which is behind a lot of the health issues in need of being treated. In some studies, it has even indicated an ability to stop the growth of cancer cells, among other things. CBD, unlike smoking marijuana outright and unlike its sibling compound also found in the cannabis plant, THC, does not get you high. It has also been shown to have little to no side effects – the worst of it being slight nausea and minimal fatigue. Lastly, it does not create a dangerous addiction, unlike many of the prescription drugs being pushed onto patients by the healthcare system. CBD’s advantage becomes most apparent when looking at the U.S.’s current opioid crisis. Opioids are most commonly prescribed to patients dealing with high levels of pain stemming from a variety of conditions. However, it is causing the deaths of about 130 people a day as a result of opioid overdoses (statistic from the Department of Health and Human Services)  and creating dangerous addictions in users. 

The fact that CBD has little to no side effects is not addictive, will not get you high and delivers the same, if not better symptom relief than prescribed drugs is quickly eliminating many people’s possible aversions to using it and leave only undeniable benefits. 

Where That Leaves Big Pharma

The possibility of the new business vertical has created an unstoppable momentum around getting marijuana legalized across the board and has fueled more and more research to be funded. More conclusive studies are what is needed to prove to gatekeepers like the FDA why CBD should be approved for sale by them. At the moment, there is only one CBD medication that has earned the FDA’s approval – Epidiolex used to treat a rare form of epilepsy. The company that was able to obtain the FDA’s approval, GW Pharmaceuticals, announced in 2018 that they plan to charge around $32,500 annually per patient for the drug and they are also applying for cannabinoid drug patents to treat everything from epilepsy to multiple sclerosis. This can be seen as an attempt by the pharmaceutical industry to monopolize cannabis treatments. They also lobbied South Dakota lawmakers to declassify CBD products if they were FDA approved only. These attempts indicate big pharma’s acknowledgment of the serious potential the CBD industry has and virtually confirms that CBD is a serious threat to the pharmaceutical industry. 

At the end of all this, looking at just the numbers, the U.S. spent $329 billion on retail prescription drugs in 2016. CBD is forecasted to reach a sales value of something between $15 – $20 billion by 2025. So when comparing, just numbers, CBD has a long way to go before it catches up to big pharma numbers. However, there is much legislation in the works and a strong momentum gaining traction to transition CBD and cannabis as a whole into the mainstream. This will undoubtedly have an effect on market value. Also, it is important to note a key trend; in states where marijuana is legal, things like antidepressant prescriptions are significantly lower than in states where marijuana is not legal. In addition to antidepressants, patients in states where marijuana is legal are being prescribed fewer scripts for nausea, chronic pain, and seizures. CBD oil is being used as a preferred method of medication for patients who are living with multiple health conditions. The more aware people are becoming about the benefits of CBD, the less they are depending on conventional prescriptions. This is an indicator of what can continue to happen in the next few years, which could point to an eventual decline in Big Pharma’s stronghold on the healthcare industry.